The Unbeliever Knows God: Presuppositional Apologetics and Atheism

by J.W. Wartick

[A]ll men already know God–long before the apologist engages them in conversation–and  cannot avoid having such knowledge… People lack neither information nor evidence… [A]ll men know that God exists… In a crucial sense, all men already are “believers”–even “unbelievers” who will not respond properly by openly professing and living obediently in accordance with the knowledge they have of God. (Greg Bahnsen, Van Til’s Apologetic, 179-180, emphasis his, cited below).

One crucial point of presuppositional apologetics is that even the unbelieving atheist really does know God. All people have knowledge of God. None can turn from it, none can escape it: everyone knows God. This knowledge is not saving knowledge. Instead, it is knowledge which is suppressed. The knowledge is ignored or even reviled. The quote above from the famed presuppositionalist Greg Bahnsen is just one example. C.L. Bolt, a popularizer of presuppositional apologetics, says similarly:

It is in the things that have been created that God is clearly perceived. This perception is, again, so clear, that people have no excuse. Not only do all of us believe in God, but we know God. (C.L. Bolt, cited below)

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What are we to make of this claim? What is the point from the presuppositionalist perspective? The claim is firmly rooted in Paul’s discussion of God’s wrath against evil in Romans 1-2 (see the text at the end of this post). Therefore, it behooves all Christians to reflect upon the notion that God is known to all people. Presuppositional Apologists have done much reflecting on these subjects, and here we shall reflect upon their insights.

What is meant by ‘knowledge of God’?

It is important to outline what exactly it is that this knowledge is supposed to be. Greg Bahnsen notes in Van Til’s Apologetic that the claim is, in part, that “[all people/unbelievers] ‘have evidence’ that justifies the belief that [God] exists” (182).

Note that there is an important distinction within presuppositional thought about what this knowledge of God means. John Frame makes it clear that there is a sense in which the unbeliever knows God and yet another sense in which the unbeliever does not know God (Frame, The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God49, cited below). According to Frame, the unbeliever knows “enough truths about God to be without excuse and may know many more…”; but “unbelievers lack the obedience and friendship with God that is essential to ‘knowledge’ in the fullest biblical sense–the knowledge of the believer” (ibid, 58). Furthermore, the unbeliever, according to Frame, is in a state wherein he fights the truth…

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